What is the thesis that will make your consulting practice successful?

What is the thesis that will make your consulting practice successful?

I was jolted to pondering this question recently.

I was going through my inbox and happened upon a quote featured in a Fortune magazine article. John Hering, CEO of mobile security company Lookout, was discussing the founders’ technical backgrounds. Specifically, how their backgrounds have impacted their approach to the mobile security business.

Here’s the quote:

Our thesis was that if you build products that not only keep people safe but also make them feel safe, that will be a successful business.

It got me thinking…

About my own business activities.

I started jotting down a few ideas and I realized that the original thesis for my own consulting/freelancing practice had evolved fairly significantly these past few years.

In fact, if I’m being completely honest with myself, it’s been more like a series of existential crises which I’ve tried to insulate my clients and family from (not always successfully).

The Evolution I Went Through

Embarrassingly, my original thesis could be broken down to:

I resigned my last position and now need something else to do. I don’t really feel like interviewing for or exploring full-time employment under someone else’s wing. And it’d probably be a good idea to earn some income.

I’m a regular rocket scientist, can’t you tell?

My (first) “let’s put a bit of thought into it” thesis was still naive and overly simplistic. It did have an inkling more – and that’s all – of professionalism though. Basically, it was:

I know some stuff, I know some folks that might like help with things related to that stuff, and I’d like to try something new. Let’s make some time available and see if I can make some money at this, until another opportunity either presents itself or my entrepreneurial bug finds something to sink it’s teeth in.

A later thesis was slightly better. It was effectively as follows:

If you provide technical assistance that people ask for, charge money for it, treat those you interact with with respect and behave with professionalism, leverage your professional network and reputation, then that will lead to a successful business.

(Full disclosure: these aren’t originally what I wrote; in some cases I didn’t write anything… or so many variations of the same thing the lineage is impossible to rebuild with 100% accuracy. I’m paraphrasing here, following the spirit of the evolution of my thinking and to make my point clearer. I’m likely benefiting from hindsight which makes me look even smarter than I am when it comes to this stuff. :-) I’m also being honest about my mistakes so, hopefully, it’ll balance out and the lessons within my own evolution will not be lost to those reading this.)

A more recent thesis, nurtured over several years, is three-pronged and goes something like this:

1. If you provide advice and services that not only solve technical challenges faced by organizations, but also focus specifically on areas tied to strategic business priorities, that will be a successful business.

2. If you provide advice and services that not only solve technical challenges faced by organizations, but also solve business and professional development challenges faced by the individuals that make up these organizations, that will be a successful business.

3. If you develop relationships with many types of individuals regardless of their role or position, through simple follow-up and one-on-one contact, by demonstrating a desire to do so without any expectations, and by being helpful from time to time, that will be a successful business.

Ultimately, the thesis is that if I (your own list will be different) do all three of the above – more often than not – and with the majority (or at least a sufficient quality) of the organizations and individuals I cross paths with, that will be a successful business1.

What do we mean, specifically, by a “successful business”?

I thought about that a bit too. I attempted to write down some concrete thoughts that were specific enough to be helpful and motivating. Being specific was key for me because it is very easy to get buried and lost in the day-to-day, week-to-week, and … (you get the point) noise and chaos that arises when running your own business.

It seems necessary, at least for me, to remind myself specifically why I’m doing this. This keeps me focused, motivated, and growing towards my goal(s).

It’s not as simple as literally being “for the money.” The money angle is more a link in the chain that gets me there, not the destination. I do enjoy being in business for myself and earning a good income, but that’s not – in the end – why I’m doing any of this.

In that sense, I suppose, the money piece, while important, is simply an aspect of the journey itself, rather than the destination. Therefore, I had to dig deeper with specificity.

Here’s an early iteration of what I wrote down.

A “successful business” is one that:

1. You can be proud of, that will support you and your family comfortably

2. Will nurture the lifestyle you desire financially, emotionally, relationship-wise, and experience-wise

3. Will be fulfilling, interesting, and attractive to you both professionally and personally.

4. Will be sustainable, given maintenance and nurturing, providing for income stability as well as opportunities for growth

An Iterative Process of Continuous Improvement

Keep in mind that I’ve continued to revise these since, as I imagine you may as well if you decide to do this. I’ve honed in on each of these areas with even greater specificity, refining them to their essence as they pertain to my own desires and goals.

Of course, other things have evolved over that same time period. Namely a better understanding of my strengths and weaknesses, a greater awareness of (distinction between) my interests versus my passions, my own analysis and hard-won lessons about how to turn certain talents, skills, and resources into money making (or not) professional activities, and – critically – a painful and difficult confrontation and separation of myself from the “product” (a very difficult endeavor when your own brain-for-rent is essentially the core “product”).

This has all served to further inform my thinking, planning, and each iteration of my professional (and personal) thesis.

What about you?

So, what is the thesis that will make your consulting practice successful for you? And what does success, specifically, mean for you? Finally, does your current strategy and priority list align with that thesis?

Our thesis was that if you build products that not only keep people safe but also make them feel safe, that will be a successful business. –John Hering, CEO Lookout

This just scratched the surface on a topic I could easily write a book about. I’ll cover this, and other topics, further in the future.

Get something out of this post?

If you enjoyed this post, I urge you to subscribe to the email list to receive notifications about new resources and updates on the business of freelancing, particularly for those in the information technology space (but anyone is welcome and the vast majority of topics/concepts end up spanning across industries). If a fellow freelancer pops into mind, why not forward this along and encourage them to join us as well?

Thanks!

Thanks for reading today. I hope you got something out of it. Don’t hesitate to post a comment (below or on the blog) or shoot me a note.


  1. It doesn’t even have to be “the majority” that you cross paths with, but I happen to think about it that way because: (a) I like to aim high; (b) even partially hitting that high bar will likely mean success; (c) I’m not smart enough to know which folks are the best ones to focus all of my resources on ahead of time; (d) I find it easier to be helpful to folks if I’m not limiting myself to certain types ahead of time; (e) I like to be helpful. 

Is “sales” a dirty word?→

Justin Jackson in a post entitled Is “sales” a dirty word? discusses a topic that hurts many freelancers, and seems common among creative and technical types.

For a lot of us, our feeling about sales stems from a bad experience with a salesperson.

The problem is, most salespeople are selling someone else’s product; they’re not directly invested in the product itself.

But you’re different.

Email Marketing Tutorial for Freelancers→

Kristi Hines, writing for the FreshBooks blog, provides a step-by-step email marketing tutorial for freelancers who are looking to use email to drive revenue:

In a nutshell, email marketing is a way to build relationships with many of the people who visit your website who might not be ready to hire you right away. By capturing their interest and encouraging them to sign up for your mailing list, you’ll be able to stay in touch with them, build interest in the value you offer and eventually turn many of them into paying clients. It’s a proven strategy that has worked for many freelancers, including copywriter Tom Tumbusch and photographer Michelle Koechle, who have shared their success with this strategy on the links provided. In today’s post I’ll walk you through how to set up a successful email marketing campaign in nine steps, so you can achieve the kind of success Tom and Michelle have.

8 Ways to Work Less and Earn More→

Christina Gillick for Bidsketch writes:

I wanted to double my hourly rate – for the primary purpose of having more leisure time. Throughout the year I tested different techniques and strategies so I could work less and earn more.

Some worked. Some didn’t.

But, at the end of the year, I more than doubled my hourly rate and I worked less than part time (or 20 hours per week).

If you too want to work fewer hours – or increase your hourly rate – here are 8 ways to maximize your working hours

We are not normal people→

Justin Jackson writes:

We get an idea for a thing, think about the technology we’d use to build it, and get excited.

“I could build this on the Twilio API!”
“I could learn that new CSS framework!”
“I could use this new tool I just purchased!”

The problem is that all of this is focused on us, the creator, and not on the customer, the consumer.

UPDATE: Justin’s post created some controversial on HackerNews

IT Consulting Lessons Month in Review – January 2014

Let’s take a look at  some of the most thought provoking and helpful posts from around the web uncovered in the past month that were particularly relevant to the business of providing technical freelancing/services.

Flaws in Handling New Business Inquiries

The WAV Group had researchers pose as consumers and make inquiries with real estate brokers. The results were depressing. Their results were about right for technology consultants as well, in my experience.

Unfortunately, that’s not the the most depressing part. It’s embarrassing for me to admit this, but the very week this study came across my desk I blew off a new contact …and we were discussing some ways we could work together. I didn’t ignore him intentionally. I simply completely dropped the ball on getting back to him in an email thread we were having.

I never like to leave somebody hanging. I have no excuse, though I told myself I was too wrapped up in a couple of projects that suddenly picked up momentum that week to continue the thread wholeheartedly. I still should have acknowledged him and said something before it became a 14 (!) day gap of silence. This is Customer Service 101 and I blew it. Learn from my mistake.

“Learn all you can from the mistakes of others.  You won’t have time to make them all yourself. “– Alfred Sheinwold

What To Do When You’re Hemorrhaging Money

The always forthright Naomi Dunford over at IttyBiz discusses 5 things to do when you feel like you’re hemorrhaging money. This feeling, unfortunately, is common for freelancers and for anyone who goes into business for themselves since we’re constantly taking risks and not collecting a regular paycheck each week. She discusses how to figure out why you feel like you’re hemorrhaging money then how to decide what you’re going to do about it. The bottom-line is this: As long as you let that feeling just float around as a feeling, you’re going to bleed out.

Do Freelancers Need to Have an LLC/Corporate Entity?

Dr. Freelance (aka: Jake Poinier) answers a readers question about LLC/corporate entities for freelancers on his blog. My view is that even if you don’t form an entity initially, at least acquire an EIN (Tax ID) just for your business activities so you don’t end up giving out your social security number (SSN) to clients…

Getting an EIN was one of the first things I did because there was no way I was going to be handing out my SSN to clients … Doubly so when I’m doing information security consulting for them.

It was a pretty simple online process a few years ago and I think I even got it instantly (which was good because I needed it for a new client request that day!) It looks to be the same straightforward online application process to get an EIN from the IRS these days. Anyhow, go see what else Jake has to say on the LLC/incorporating topic and decide what makes the most sense for you. (Yes, the specifics of this are US-centric, but the principles apply elsewhere.)

The Business of Freelance: Tales of a Full Service Freelancer (Video)

Freelancer Michael Jones did a pretty bad ass presentation  (video) for a user group on The Business of Freelance based on his personal experiences and a broad economic examination of working as a digital creative services freelancer. His video presentation is 19 minutes long and well worth it. The good stuff starts just under 2 minutes in, but the first part gives you some context on his professional experience.

Posts on ITConsultingLessons.com

Also, here’s a quick look back at the latest original content posted last month on the ITConsultingLessons.com blog:

15 Ways to Get Paid Fast When Freelancing – These are the techniques I’ve found most effective to get paid fast when doing technology freelancing. Or, as I described it to some folks on Reddit,15 Ways To Get Paid With Less Hassle as a Freelancer: Battle Tested Techniques You Can Implement Immediately to Get Paid Fast, Efficiently, and Professionally.

The Freelancing Technologist Success Ladder – Many think that folks more successful than themselves are better at marketing, lucky… or some other mysterious attribute. That may be true, but often they’re in an entirely different business. It’s no wonder folks get frustrated trying to chase others when they are on the outside looking in: They’re chasing the outward results someone else is achieving but don’t understand the underlying strategy or positioning. Based on my own realization of this and frustrations over it, this is my attempt to document some of these different approaches to the business of freelancing, all with quite different positioning.

Learn How To Double Your Freelancing Rate

Brennan Dunn produced a nifty looking technical freelancing course, hosted by Skillshare. Here’s how, in part, he describes the course: “As a freelancer, it’s easy to be overcome by fear and make sacrifices — by accepting lower rates or poor quality clients — in order to keep us moving forward. Rarely do we step back and work on our business, rather than in our business. If your effective rate is NOT $200 an hour, or $8,000 a week, you should join this class.” The class is $20. Read the full course outline and reviews left by others who have already taken the online course.

That’s it for last month. Enjoy the rest of your week. Don’t forget to subscribe to the email list or RSS feed. Oh, and learn from my mistake. :-)

P.S. I may have missed something that you think deserves consideration and that your peers might appreciate as well. Shoot me a email or hit me on Twitter (@jtr) if so. -Josh

A blog about being a self-employed freelancer, consultant, or service provider. Edited by a consulting technologist.